Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Faux Smoked Salmon Skin/ Obi progress

Takeshima wove some paper thread weft on a linen warp. It was her first time to weave anything.The paper thread came from some odds and ends picked up on Yahoo auction. Once woven she cut out a Buddhist cloud pattern (her first stencil) and we made the rice and bran paste and then dyed it with indigo. Then we took off the paste, shifted the pattern slightly and re-pasted it. I dipped it in the persimmon tannin every morning for three weeks and it came out looking like smoked salmon skin. She is a very imaginative bag maker and we are all looking forward to see the salmon bag. Her first weaving and first stencil dye project in one.

Kamei san has been working on her obi step by step by step using shibori and katazome techniques together. Again it was pasted once and dyed with indigo six times. The paste removed and the obi dried and ironed. Next a second pasting of the same stencil slightly shifted and dyed twice to get a light blue shadow. The obi will be folded in half and the back pattern is shibori. Next step will be to dye the shibori half with an orange dye, perhaps madder with gardenia pods. The blue will be greenish.

The back side of the obi stitched and ready to dye.

Pasted for the second time with the stencil slightlyshifted. Use fine cedar sawdust on the still sticky rice paste to make it slightly stronger. We looked at several samples of Japanese karakusa (arabesque) and combined several ideas and from that she cut out this particular stencil.

Looking refined and timeless with a few more steps left!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Persimmons and Stencil Dying

Persimmon tannin is used to make the traditional Japanese katagami stencil paper and I use persimmon tannin later in the process to dye with.

Certain varieties of unripe persimmons are used for their high tannin content to make a traditional water repellent in Japan and Korea. (Perhaps, also in other areas in the world I am not aware of.) You run across articles on persimmon tannin processing in magazines and musty old journals on Japanese crafts. Inevitably the used-for-a-single-week-a-year-hand-cranked-fruit/persimmon squasher is pictured in the corner of a smelly barn along with rustic bamboo baskets overflowing with green persimmons . A farmer and his wife with cool dental work and tenugui wrapped on their heads standing in front of wood casks of fermenting liquid proudly but shyly. The process is described but the real secrets of the trade, like how long the fruit is allowed to ferment and how the bad bacteria is killed and how it is filtered etc. are always left conspicuously out. I've never been able to make the high-quality stuff but make an unrefined (some say better, but I don't agree) instant version.

Our local band of monkeys climb up and steal the fruit this time of year and it is easy to collect the fallen squashies and grate them with a stainless cheese grater. Then squeeze out the pulp and use the juice to dye thread and cloth. It takes several weeks for the earth tones to come out.

The persimmon tannin liquid that is more stable than my home made version. There has been a boom in kakishibi use the past few years and the price has dramatically come down. The slightly more expensive type from Seiwa in Takodanobaba is very good. They came out with a much less smelly version a few years ago. Why they still sell the rancid 'Eau de Poo' variety at the same price it is difficult understand. It used to be like buying a bottle of distilled diarrhea. Honestly.

Every house in the Japanese countryside has at least a few persimmon trees. At least one would be a sweet variety where the fruit can be eaten once it turns red in October. The others will be a very astringent variety that will be peeled and strung up from the outside rafters in the sun to make a sweet dried fruit. The leaves in early spring are used to wrap sushi in and contain some natural preservative that lightly flavors the fish. The trees themselves are a gorgeous part of the autumn scenery with the red fruit hanging form branches the farmers/monkeys couldn't reach. A few hang in there into winter for birds to savor.

The house with a few hanging/drying persimmons.

Persimmon dye needs ultra-violet rays to change into the golden brown color. You dilute the liquid one third to one fifth depending on whether you are dying thread or depending on the coarseness of the cloth and it's eventual function. Wet the cloth directly in the diluted solution and then place it directly on the ground or I sometimes put it on my metal kitchen roof. Snoopy loves to walk on it as it dries so precious stuff gets the roof treatment where Snoopy can't access it. You want as much heat and direct sun as possible. The tannin absorbs the suns rays and turns a crispy golden brown. One piece usually goes through this process at least 15 times. Thread of course is hung up.

It is impossible to get an even dye on thread. Just the areas the sun hits in the first few hours will turn dark.

I look forward to the dying season all winter and can squeeze in perhaps five weeks from mid-May until the monsoon starts and I start again in August when it lifts. The days are getting shorter now and there are only a few weeks left to dye at most. Last week that the color changes slower than it has been. The shadows are longer and it's sad not to be up at the crack of dawn with the daily routine of wetting the cloth and thread and arranging it in the sun to soak up the heat.

This same persimmon tannin has been used for hundreds of years to make a layered paper called, Katagami used for cutting stencils. Thin washi (Japanese hand made paper)is covered with the tannin and several layers are added. (I have seen it made with newspaper and tannin as well.) It comes in several thicknesses. It is tough and when wet resembles leather to some degree. It can be punch cut or cutter knife cut. Some stencils require a fine silk mesh to be lacquered in place to enforce the stencil before it can be used. It has a distinct wood creosote smell. (Creosote is what they used to dunk railway ties in to preserve them. When making charcoal the sugar and liquid content of the wood goes out the chimney. The liquid can be dripped/distilled out of the flue easily.)

I am currently cutting out this stencil of lotus and leaves. I will use the stencil to make a kimono which has no shoulder seams. The pattern must face both up and down and look natural. Hmmm. The design on the edges must line up to make a repeating pattern. It is too Japanese folk-crafty for my liking but already I've invested a dozen evening beer and as many hours so I'll finish it up. I'll carve three stencils in total to resist in several startges. The flowers white. The pond dark and the leaves light blue. Still a lot of work ahead of me here before the pasting and dying even start. You can see the special hand made knife I use to cut the stencil out with.

There are a few large pots of lotus outside the front door and they are used as a motifs occasionally. They bloom only a few hours and then fade quickly. They are heavily laden with Buddhist meaning. Out of the mud comes purity... life is transient...kind of thing. Buddha usually sits on some kind of lotus platform and lotus are often swirling around somewhere in his halo or on his garments.

Here is a stencil I carved many years ago of willow branches behind a blind. It has been used so many times it has fallen to pieces. It is still possible still squeeze out a few more works once in a while. The stencil may be in shreds but it seems happy to be made use out of. Like dropping by for coffee with an old friend who isn't quite all there but seems to enjoy the company and reminiscing about younger days.

This wallet was made from some linen patterned from the falling apart stencil. Indigo and persimmon tannin dyes.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Making Tools

I encourage all my students to weave on simple back strap looms for some time before investing in a larger expensive loom. First, so that they really know if they like weaving or it is just a romantic passing phase. Secondly, I think the experience with a more primitive loom gives them more insight into weaving and the aesthetics I particularly want to pass on to them. Some make their own reeds from bamboo grown locally. (see old post, TUESDAY, 30 MARCH, 2010) Here Minako has just finished her back cushion for her simple backstrap loom. She wove the rag weave herself using vegetable dyed silk scraps from old kimono lining and dyed the indigo inner cushion. The smoked bamboo support comes from the bamboo rafters of a thatch roofed farmhouse that was sadly taken down in a near by village last year. These simple parts of her weaving tools will last a lifetime. Like drinking from a favorite cup over many years it is comforting to use familiar and comforting tools to weave.

Natural Dyes

Here is a good example of how a single dye bath can produce dye two different shades. The pigment was from onion skins. Approximately four times the weight of the dry silk to be dyed. The skins were brought to a boil and the first liquid was taken, carefully filtering any jellyish gunk from the boiled bath. The skins were brought to a boil again and the second dye bath taken. They were combined. The lighter skein was dyed for five minutes and then iron mordanted in a light solution for a few minutes. The lighter skein was also dyed in skein form and not opened so that the thread intentionally dyes unevenly. The second skein was left in the dye bath for 30 minutes and 10 minutes in a slightly stronger iron mordant solution. The color depth and difference coming from the amount of pigment absorbed, the amount of mordant used and the amount of time the thread was mordanted and left in the dye bath. Both colors are beautiful. I prefer to dye many different colors, build up a stock and then combine them later. On occasion I will aim for a specific color if the dyestuff is not available throughout the year and I want to weave a bigger item like a kimono.

I spun the darker silk roughly on a foot peddled spinning wheel. The camel colored thread was spun by Minako san on a motor driven silk spinner.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


In a few posts over the next month I will try to give some insights into Japanese Katazome from my experiences. No Specific order...

Katazome is the word used for a paste resist type of dying in Japan. The subject quickly gets broad and deep at the same time. I'll keep it somewhat simple and focused to indigo dyed material here.

It was a skill I picked up unintentionally over several years. I often visited a katazome/indigo craftsman in a nearby town to dye with his indigo in the winter months when I didn't have a vat going at my house myself. I was first introduced to Noguchi san 17 years ago when I took my elderly friend there so she could dye some silk thread blue for a kimono she wanted to weave for her husband. I had been to several natural fermentation indigo studios before (and studied) but this was the first one that seemed 'pure' in the sense that it was a 7th generation craftsman making a single product, a double-sided paste resist summer cotton kimono.

The place was/is ramshackle and even had a wooden bathtub heated by a fire. Unfortunately it was replaced by a plastic model a few years back. (Let me aged wooden cedar bathtub feels like heaven on yer bare bottom after a hard day at the indigo vat.) In other words, the place was real. No pretensions, no gift shop selling indigo dyed tissue box covers and dorky hiking hats with a tag explaining that indigo has been 'used since ancient times to ward off mosquitoes'. Here was just a straightforward craftsman and his wife and family struggling to make ends meet.

At that time I was dying thread and shape resist material and not interested in Katazome.

I was doing my best to get a handle on those skills and was cognitively dissonant to the process going on next to me that Noguchi san had been going through since he was a child helping his father and grandfather. I watched him from a distance in his studio and asked polite questions about the seemingly impossible to understand process. There were ancient hand crank machines and brick ovens, wooden tubs of ash and powders and soot and soybeans and an array of blue stained hooked and pointed tools. I felt I had seen these things in some torture dungeon in a castle/museum somewhere in Europe. I knew these tools were all in-use to make a simple innocent looking roll of flower printed indigo cloth. The whole place is still somewhat spooky and time slipped like a surreal indigo blue splashed slaughterhouse. A casual glance around the place with the almost overwhelming smell of ammonia from the fermenting indigo vats might make you into some kind of denim phobic version of a vegetarian.

I honestly thought it would take a life time of someone far more skilled than myself to penetrate into. So I didn't even try at first.

Taking in his complex work was like learning a language. Watching the big one's mouths move and unconsciously forming the sounds with your own mouth. I must have looked pretty fetal speaking broken Japanese and gawking all around me at the incomprehensible chaotic studio.

I helped him prepare a 6 meter board with heavy rice paste one day. I couldn't fathom why. I watched him make the paste from some really foul-looking goops in ceramic containers pulled out of a burrow in the ground. I couldn't fathom all the fuss and effort until years later when I started to make my own paste that always seemed to be lacking something. Body or elasticity or some other quality that made it impossible to get a clear line when dying.

He would grind some red powder from taken from an amber apothocaric type chipped glass cylinder kept on a rafter beam, with a mortar and pestle. Later I figured out some of the chaos in the system and that there was a system in the chaos. The goop was kept under the ground to keep it cool and not quite fermenting, the pigment was kept on a rafter to keep it dry and was used to make the paste visible on a neutral background fabric. The heavier paste was to hold the linen in perfect place so the pattern could be seamlessly stenciled in place. The hundreds of steps are not carried out in an order that makes sense to the casual observer. Dropping in once a month for a few hours was like randomly reading pages in a Dostoevsky novel. It couldn't possibly make sense until read from the start to the finish.

After several years of visiting Noguchi san I realized I had almost unintentionally figured out what he was doing. When I started the questions in earnest I ran into the famous Japanese proverb and it painfully stubbed my too big Caucasian nose. 'A master doesn't teach you must steal his technique.'

Stealing technique. Young me and ageless Noguchi san.

Technique stolen and starting on my own.

He was suddenly very mute and I even got an single arched eyebrow and grumpf when I queried a bit to obviously into his secret recipe for keeping his indigo healthy in the winter. I've caught my own eyebrow arch and a snark in my own voice when I am asked these same questions now. Not that I am being cheap with the tricks of the trade. No... it's that the tricks have taken years and years to pick up and it is like asking a fisherman about the cloud formations and the chance of rain. These things are not put into words and to try invites an instant migraine.

Noguchi san.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Cherry Tree Bark Dye

We climbed up the mountain behind the house and cut a few branches of wild mountain yamazakura. We thinly sliced off the bark off the heavier branches and finely chopped up the smaller twigs. The leaves are sweet so at this time of year insects have munched most of them off. What was leftover went into the dye pot as well. Boiled for an hour the dye liquid was a loquat colored pink. We dyed hand spun silk a creamy yellow without the slightest hint of the pink we were hoping for. (And I had promised...) Maybe the specific tree, maybe the time of year but no pinkish hue.
With a light iron mordant we got a delicate green grey which we found to be called, torinokoiro 'bird egg/baby color' in Japanese.

Besides the general practical information about mordant salts and which plant gives which color I had to start to explain the limitations of trying to get the same color twice. You can never make the exact silk thread twice. The amount of gum removed from the silk will be different. The amount of twist will be different and the plants pigment content are always changing with the season and the weather.

They are both learning to spin silk floss right now. I'll try to show them the colors we can get form the vines, branches, roots and leaves in the close vicinity of my house each week. I tell the students the best way to learn about natural dying is to just keep dying and dying for months. The amount of thread builds up and then the fun part of combining colors starts.

It was Minako and Takeshima's first go at natural dyes. Looks like they are hooked after their first try.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Arrow Kasuri... weaving up well

This is some thing I am working on. I tied and resisted some of the warp threads first. Then indigo dyed them.

Threading the reed and warping was trouble free but quite slow.

The arrow kasuri was a common pattern in the Edo period. Lining them up harmoniously is the tricky part. The thread is linen. It will be folded in half and become a men's obi. Yuko and I will l weave 4 meters each. She is so skilled. Just started weaving and already she is keeping up with me on such a difficult project.

Kamei san's Nagoya Obi

Kamei san cut her own stencil on persimmon tannin paper and applied a silk net to keep the stencil strong. She is applying the rice and bran paste with some red pigment to the cloth. The red pigment in the paste is eventually washed away. It functions so that the paste is visible against the cloth color to ensure the paste is spread evenly. The next step will be to dye it indigo tomorrow, reapply paste on both sides and then if weather permits start persimmon tannin dying over the next few weeks while the ultra-violet rays are still strong enough.

The powder is from red cedar and helps the paste last a few more dips in the indigo.

She is adding the resist paste by hand/finger to the bars that support her stencil pattern.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Summer Cotton/Linen Kimono

It is a bit of a challenge to make sure each of the students makes a yukata different from the other students. I wanted Kamei san to make something feminine and elegant. It took her a tremendous amount of effort to tie this 13 meters of linen. The dying would usually take a full day to dip and then oxidize the entire roll over ten times. This time we simply poured the indigo onto the material, let it oxidize and repeated this several times to get an icy and cloudy effect. It looks very Kyoto I felt. The dying only took half an hour. It must of felt slightly anti-climatic for her after all that work stitching and binding. Shibori aficionados will love the effort gone into this subtle work.

This is a sample of what her yukata would have looked like had she dipped it ten times. Traditional pattern. Very bold.